Rob and Mike watch Edgar Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934) at The Projection Booth. “The first big American studio film — and last big American studio film – directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, The Black Cat is, uh, ‘inspired’ by Edgar Allan Poe’s short story and stars Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff in a taut game of life and death.”
Posted December 27, 2012
The trouble with endings, of course, is that they are really difficult to do well. I’ll try to take that warning to heart myself, since this piece will be my last for The Cultural Gutter. And what better way to wrap up a really fun time on a neat project than to look at endings!
I’ve written about the endings of lots of major pop culture items here on the Gutter:
- Home Stretch – Lost, Supernatural (with some talk about BSG and Avatar: The Last Airbender)
- Follow-Up Visit – Harry Potter, Attolia series, Timothy Zahn’s 6-part Dragonback series
- Spoilerific – Buffy and Angel
- The Trouble with Endings – Minority Report
And my two most-commented pieces:
- His Dark Ending – Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy
- Not So Happy Ending – Stephen King’s series of 7 books, The Dark Tower
I spent a bit of time revisiting these reviews, and thinking about endings, and trying to make up a list of my favourite endings. Generally speaking, the endings I like the best are not the ones with a shocking twist or some metafictional commentary on endings. I tend to like endings that are a bit workmanlike in their schematic nature, but really solidly constructed and repay all the narrative energy expended to that point. Here’s a list of a few types of endings; the endings I like best are in the first category.
Basic – Storyline and major emotional moments are wrapped up in a satisfying way. Sometimes this can get fairly long (Lord of the Rings by way of Tolkien’s return-from-WWI scouring), sometimes you get barely enough. The vast majority of genre pieces fall somewhere in the middle here – our hero has triumphed, or there’s a joyful wedding, or the murder mystery is successfully solved, etc. Messing with the ending is a big no-no in genre, as far as I’ve seen, so the vast majority of genre pieces deliver the goods in a reliable if not always memorable way. As it should be?
Twist – Lots of well-known examples, mostly movies like The Sixth Sense and Fight Club. I dunno, I think these examples are fairly dated, and date themselves rapidly. If anyone has a more recent title to mention, please chime in below in the comments, but I think this category is mostly out of style.
Leave it up to you – The story takes you up to a big climactic moment, then drops the curtain, letting you decide the protagonist’s fate in your own mind. Most of the examples I can think of are actually pretty clear cut in their internal logic, indicating that it would be a bad result and not a happy one. I’m especially thinking about The Grey, but also Stephen King’s Cell – in both cases, a turn for the better would contradict what’s come before, but the cut at just the right moment ostensibly leaves it up to you. Another example that I’m not familiar with myself but has lodged itself in public consciousness is of course The Sopranos (Alan Sepinwall recently had a great piece about it over at Slate).
Hand to hand combat – I separate this one out from the basic category, since it’s such a common thing especially in the movies. Lots of early Trek would go here. I call it the primal satisfaction version of the handy wrap-up. I guess it’s the “why bother with anything more complicated” for stories that are fairly simple to begin with.
Deus ex machina – The ending where something unexpected and unsatisfying solves all the problems. Almost never any good. The literal version of this, technobabble, is in lots of later Trek.
Calvinball! – One of the interesting things I’ve come across recently, via a review of Prometheus, is the concept of Calvinball as a narrative approach. Lots of discussion about Lost of course! This is the kind of ending where there might be a twist, there might be hand-to-hand combat, there might be anything else, but there just isn’t any basic genre-style satisfaction since nothing’s built up to nothing. I think the original idea of Calvinball in the comic is something anarchic and purely fun that you do on your own, but the thing is – it’s not that great to watch someone else’s game of Calvinball. Unfortunately a fairly common type of ending, and rarely any good.
The subject matter of my two reviews that got the most comments on the Gutter make an interesting contrast. Neither His Dark Materials nor The Dark Tower seem to fit neatly into any of these categories – they’re both a bit Calvinball-esque, a bit twisty, and with King’s epic, a giant dose of leaving it up to you. I disliked the Pullman ending and was generally fine with King’s (it was probably the best ending that was remotely possible for King to write, in the absence of superhuman writing powers), but lots of people disagreed heartily (and to be fair, some agreed).
As mentioned, most of the endings I like fall into my first category above – really well-constructed and satisfying endings that deliver the goods but don’t mess too heartily with the formula. To mention two examples that stand out in my mind: I have a lot of respect for Zelazny’s first Amber series (which I wrote about here on the Gutter in Starting a Series at Book 8), which had a lot of revelations and adventures that were impeccably assembled and emotionally supported by character development; and Avatar: The Last Airbender (which I wrote about over at Strange Horizons a while ago), which was marvellous all the way along and then blew every other superpowered showdown, before or since, out of the water with a phenomenal four-part conclusion.
What’s your favourite ending, and why?